JR Raphael

It's time to rethink the Android upgrade standard

February 13, 2014 12:16 PM EST

Android Upgrade StandardLet's face it: You can't talk about Android upgrades without talking about uncertainty. By their very nature, upgrades on Android vary from one device to the next; it's an inevitable side effect of the platform's open approach and the fact that manufacturers can modify the software in many different ways.

We can't change the fact that some manufacturers are going to be better than others about delivering upgrades and communicating with customers. And as history has shown, Google can't and/or won't enforce guidelines governing how device-makers handle software rollouts.

Google tried once -- remember? Back in 2011, the company announced the "Android Update Alliance," a group that was going to bring the major manufacturers together to create standards for how devices would be updated following Android OS releases.

Android Upgrade FailCuriously, we never heard another official word about the Update Alliance after that announcement. But one thing did stick from its short-lived existence: the idea that all devices should receive updates for a period of 18 months from their launch date. While the rest of the Alliance fizzled, that 18-month minimum became a widely accepted standard that's still referenced in upgrade decisions today.

It was the reason Google itself cited for denying the Android 4.4 KitKat upgrade to its former flagship Galaxy Nexus phone, which launched internationally in November of 2011 and in the U.S. that same December. Google made no bones about it, plainly stating that the phone fell "outside of the 18-month update window when Google and others traditionally update devices."

Interestingly, that's the only scenario in which the 18-month standard seems to come up nowadays -- when it serves as a justification for a company to drop support for a device that, in the grand scheme of things, isn't really all that old. On the flip side of the coin, it's not uncommon for manufacturers to ignore the standard when convenient and deny upgrades to phones that aren't yet 18 months old (just ask HTC).

Android Upgrades: KitKatThat's why the situation stuck out like a sore thumb while I was assembling my Android upgrade report card on manufacturers' progress with KitKat this week. Why should 18 months -- a year and a half -- be an acceptable one-sided guideline for when phones can be abandoned? It just doesn't make sense.

Think about it: Most people these days buy new phones with two-year contracts. Those of us who purchase our phones off-contract typically spend $400 to $600 -- or sometimes even more -- on an unsubsidized device. In either scenario, 18 months of software support is an arbitrary arrangement that, even when it is honored, doesn't line up with our current device life spans. We can do better.

At a bare minimum, manufacturers should be committing to at least two years of upgrades -- with their high-end phones, if nothing else. And it should be two years from the date the phone actually goes on sale in any given country; just because someone announced a phone on a stage in October doesn't mean anything if I couldn't buy it until December.

If Google can't or won't convince companies to maintain any sort of meaningful universal standard, maybe it's time for individual manufacturers to step up to the plate with their own extended assurances. Now, let's not kid ourselves: A company like Samsung isn't going to bother making that kind of public commitment. Why should it? It's got the marketing and brand recognition to sell millions of phones already -- and as long as folks keep forking over the dough, it's got no reason to devote the energy to improving post-sales support. 

Android Upgrades: HTC, MotorolaBut Motorola? HTC? Yeah -- those guys could benefit from building a reputation of being the ones to turn to for reliable ongoing upgrades. Motorola has already started working on establishing such a reputation when it comes to upgrade speed, and HTC is trying (though with less immediate success) to do the same thing.

So let's take it to the next level. Speed is great, but when people buy a device for two years (or spend hundreds of dollars on an unlocked phone), they also deserve to know they're not going to get abandoned three quarters of the way through that cycle. Someone needs to show the industry that things can be better -- that, as Moto has reminded us with upgrade timeliness, "barely acceptable" doesn't have to be as good as it gets.

Small-scale as it may sound, even a single company leading the way would be a significant start. It could even be a competitive advantage: Feature the commitment prominently in marketing. Put a badge on device packaging. "Two-year upgrade guarantee. Other devices get abandoned too soon. This phone will keep getting better with fast and frequent updates over time." All it takes is one company to do things right for a new standard to be established -- a standard by which every other manufacturer will then be measured.

Android Power TwitterHere's hoping someone steps up and seizes the opportunity. At that point, it'll be up to us to vote with our wallets and -- just as we do now in so many other ways -- choose what kind of Android experience we want to have.

UPDATE: Surprise! The Android upgrade challenge has been answered